As more than 1,000 people listened intently, America’s most famous undocumented immigrant, Jose Antonio Vargas, shared his personal story at Pisgah Legal’s ninth annual Justice Forum, recounting inspiring words from author Toni Morrison, “If you are free, then you need to free somebody else.”
Mr. Vargas spoke to the crowd that ranged in age from school children to senior citizens on October 3 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville. He spoke about finding the courage to “go public” about what it’s like to be undocumented and live in the United States and how he works to educate others about misconceptions surrounding immigrants.
Like many immigrants, there is no path for Mr. Vargas to “get legal.” Brought to the U.S. by his grandparents as a child, he didn’t know that his grandfather had purchased fake documents for him to travel from the Philippines. He discovered that he wasn’t in the country legally when he went to apply for his driver’s license at age 16. If he left the U.S., he would be put on a decades-long waiting list and likely never be allowed to enter the country again.
With the help of caring mentors and teachers, Mr. Vargas went on to attend college and excelled at journalism, eventually writing for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and winning a Pulitzer Prize for helping cover the Virginia Tech shooting. Today, he is the Founder and CEO of Define American, the nation’s leading nonprofit media organization that fights injustice and anti-immigrant hate through the power of storytelling.
“We love to say we are a country of immigrants, but we are not telling the full story,” he said. “We are leaving out African Americans – they were not immigrants, they were brought here by force – and Native Americans who were already here.”
Mr. Vargas continued, “Here in Asheville, this land was within the boundaries of the Cherokee. How did everyone else get here? Migration and ‘birthright.’ For me telling this more complicated story is part of our journey.”
He said that telling personal stories is an important way to fight “the anti-immigration virus that has swept the nation.” He encouraged the audience to challenge assumptions and falsehoods. “What are you doing to risk your own privilege?” he asked. “Challenge your grandfather at the Thanksgiving table, talk to school board members about resources for undocumented children, encourage Asheville to lead the fight in North Carolina for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.”
Guests saw a video about how Pisgah Legal Services makes a difference in the lives of local immigrants, gave Mr. Vargas a standing ovation at the conclusion of the event, and made cash and online donations that allowed Pisgah Legal to successfully meet the $40,000 Justice for All Giving Challenge issued by generous donors earlier this year.
Attendee Peter Hawes said, “Jose was a gift to all of us. Thank you Pisgah Legal for continuing to move us into the local and worldwide community as better informed, more compassionate people.”
Thank you to everyone who attended the event, and to all the generous sponsors who made the event possible (below).
Special thanks to the following Champion and Partner Sponsors:
Thanks also to all these wonderful sponsors:
All Souls Pizza
Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity
Asheville Wine Market
BlackBird Frame & Art
Blue Ridge Orthodontics
Celine and Company
Cris Bifaro Woodworks
Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community
Earth Equity Advisors
First Congregational Church of Hendersonville
Jesse Kitt Photography
Judy Futch Consulting
Law Office of Leah Broker, P.A.
Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty
New Hope Presbyterian Church
North Carolina Justice Center
Pitts, Hay & Hugenschmidt, P.A.
RHA Health Services
St. Eugene Catholic Church
St. James Episcopal Church – Black Mountain
St. Matthias Episcopal Church
Town & Mountain Realty
Trinity Episcopal Church
United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County
Windsor Boutique Hotel